Looking for Zest? Take a Tour!
from Church Magazine, Summer 2003

Adult Formation leaders wanting to add sparkle to their encounters with all kinds of parish groups could take a cue from the oldest cathedrals in Europe by offering guided tours of the parish’s sacred spaces. Tours of the worship space and chapel, Reconciliation room and sacristy add zest to meetings of First Eucharist and Baptism parents, new parishioners and staff, RCIA and Re-Membering groups, pastoral councils and stewardship boards.


Tours get people talking to each other, introduce them painlessly to lots of parish history and Catholic traditions, revive their interest in Bible stories, help bring home some of the meaning behind the Vatican II message, and give people pride in their parish.


“I was so impressed by the tour of the worship space that I went home and set aside a small part of a room in my own house for a sacred space,” one man said. “In the parish tour I found that everything – EVERYthing in the worship space has meaning. Why shouldn’t it be the same in my own home?”


Tours are the perfect tool for adult faith formation. They’re memorable, they’re free, they get adults moving and talking, and they can be led by any parishioner who has the passion and preparation to speak wittily and well about parish culture and traditions. Tours are also one of the best tools around to let people know about the connection each Catholic Christian has to the larger church, both in space (the diocesan and worldwide church) and time (the communion of saints).


Yet if people are given a choice of whether to take a tour of the church, they’ll usually shudder and say no. It sounds so deadly.


“Before we went on the tour of the church, I couldn’t imagine spending 45 minutes hearing about the windows and walls of our very plain building,” one RCIA sponsor said in her evaluation. “I’d been here for years. I knew it all. But right from the beginning, I was fascinated. There was a history here, and a lot of thought that went behind every decision in the architecture and environment. This was great!”


If a parish already produces a brochure on its history and architecture, tour leaders can take this as a resource. Reading “Building Committee” minutes or talking to older parishioners who were involved in some of the planning for a new church or addition will also help. It’s important that the tour guide have lots of information about each part of the building, but also that she has the Catholic savvy to be able to talk about revised sacramental rites or bring human interest stories into her tour spiel. The guide is always looking for two basics: “Why is the meaning behind this sacred space or object?” “Is there a short Scriptural passage that connects to this part of the tour?”


Leading a tour does not involve giving a monologue. Even the quietest group of adults will get interested if the tour guide asks for their ideas. “What do you see here?” “Why do you suppose we do it this way?” “What shape is the font? Why?” “What do you notice about the water?” “What do you think is depicted in that window?” “How many pillars are there around the worship space? Any idea why?” – All are questions that get the tour group involved. People bend closer or stand on tip-toe to see what there is to see, and as their bodies move, their minds zoom in on the beauty and symbolism around them.


What is involved in a church tour? Each parish center, worship space, and chapel in the country is different, of course. That’s what makes each parish tour so interesting. But there are basics that apply to almost all churches. Each parish (and individual tour guide) will modify the following list to make the tour specific to the architecture, art, culture, and traditions of that worshipping community.

DOORS: Is there one entrance to the parish center, symbolizing the fact that people come from many places/ages/family structures, but that once they walk in they become one, and that they leave as one, in the power of the Spirit, to take the message back to their worlds? Or are there many doors, symbolizing the many kinds of people who come together to worship, but who find unity and community in this place and with one another?

BAPTISMAL FONT: Is it strong and solid, symbolizing the firm foundation of faith? Is it an old-fashioned pedestal style, representing a connection to the parish’s long history? Is it large enough for baptism by immersion, symbolizing dying in Christ and rising to new life? Why is the font in a prominent place? If the font has moving water, the tour guide will mention the passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “I am the living water.” If there are symbols or words on the font, the guide should ask the tourists to decipher them, then explain why they’re there.

PASCHAL CANDLE: Members of the group can say what’s on the candle, then the tour guide explains the meaning behind the symbols, when the Paschal Candle is used, and what it represents. This is a good chance to talk about the importance of the Easter Vigil in the church year.

AMBRY: To be Catholic is to be connected, and the oils represent the parish’s connection with the Bishop who blesses them. The guide should say a few words about each kind of oil and when it is used. Many Catholics don’t know about the revised Sacrament of Anointing: this is a good chance to describe briefly what it is and the many people for whom it’s intended. If the parish schedules Masses of Anointing, the guide might mention when the next one is and describe what happens there.

WORSHIP SPACE ENTRY: Is there symbolism behind the number of doors, or is there a Bible passage near the entrance? Why was that passage chosen?

WORSHIP SPACE SHAPE: Are the pews curved around the sanctuary to enhance the sense of community? Are they facing the sanctuary, reflecting the tradition of centuries of church construction? Do the people in the tour group know this is called the worship space because WE are the church? This is a good spot to mention the Second Vatican Council and all the many revisions in church architecture and art that followed from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. People in the group are likely to get involved in the discussion of changes in church architecture and liturgies in the since Vatican II.

SANCTUARY: If the sanctuary is designed so the altar and ambo have approximately equal status, the leader can talk about how the arrangement of the sanctuary reflects the two major parts of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. If there’s anything unusual in the sanctuary (the Bishop’s chair, or an altar or ambo with a particular history or symbolism), he should mention these. This is a good time to talk about how the liturgical colors used in the sanctuary and vestments reflect the seasons of the church year.

CROSSES: Is there a permanent cross? Who designed it? What aspect of Jesus does it portray? Why? Is there a processional cross? Why? What is the symbolism of following the cross into and out of the worship space at every weekend liturgy?

ARTWORK: If the parish has stained glass windows, statues, or the Stations of the Cross or other devotional objects, the tour guide should know who made them, what they depict, and why that theme was chosen for this parish. He should ask the tour participants what they see in the windows before explaining everything.

EUCHARISTIC CHAPEL: The tour leader should talk about this space, again a reflection of the vision of Vatican II, as a smaller, more intimate place for prayer. How else is the space used – weekday Masses? Prayer groups? The tour participants should know how welcome they are to come here with their children. The guide should point out the tabernacle, the lamp or candle that’s lit when the consecrated hosts are present, and any other special features of this space. If there is a Scriptural connection here, so much the better. One parish has a Chapel with a large piece of impressionistic art based on the stories of the manna in the desert and the feeding of the 5,000. Another has symbols of light and Resurrection throughout the Eucharistic Chapel. The guide should refer to any pertinent Scripture passages in describing the art and symbolism of this space. Many of the passages will be unknown or long-forgotten by the tourists and it will help to connect the Bible to today’s life and worship experiences.

RECONCILIATION ROOMS: Decades after Reconciliation rooms were introduced into Catholic churches, many Catholics have never seen one, and are still unaware that a church building has anything other than “confessionals.” The guide should talk about the revisions in the Sacrament of Penance and touch on the fact that this sacrament is meant to be a sacrament of healing and peace. There will be lively discussion here.

SACRISTY: The tour shouldn’t end before a quick trip through the sacristy. In fact, this will probably be one of the most interesting stops for the group. The guide will show how the wine and hosts are packaged, all the books of rites that Catholic parishes use, the vestments (again commenting on the liturgical colors), and the many candles for different occasions. It’s always a surprise for people to see and smell incense pebbles. If elements needed for the environment are kept here, take a walk through the church year by pointing out items that are used to enhance the environment for Advent, Lent, Holy Week, Pentecost, or Ordinary Time. 

WHAT ELSE? Is there a “peace garden” or meditation spot on the parish grounds? Is there a large gathering space where people are encouraged to mingle before and after Mass? Are there bells that call people to Mass? (If they are also rung at the “Angelus” times, the guide should mention how this connects the people of this parish to those who stopped their work to pray the Angelus hundreds of years ago.) Does the parish celebrate Ember Days or Rogation Days as a connection to the natural cycle of seasons? Does the parish have a donut Sunday or some parish-wide event coming soon after this tour, to which the people on the tour should be warmly invited? What is the parish known for? Why? By now the tour group will want to hear anything they can about this place that is their parish home.

A tour guide who is knowledgeable, relaxed, humorous, open to questions, and excited about her/his parish home will evoke an interest that no welcoming booklet or meeting can offer. People enjoy hands-on learning, and the tour of the church literally moves people into a deeper understanding of Scripture, church art and architecture, parish organizational structures, the significance of Vatican II in everyday parish life, the importance of the sacraments, and the special characteristics and quirks of the parish. The tour of sacred spaces can be a chance to explore what it means to be a Catholic Christian today.

(I have led many church tours and find that people are always interested in the hidden storeroom behind the sanctuary, the incense pellets, the “Angelus” prayer, which someone in the group can usually recall, and the fact that the church bells are rung electronically rather than by a little monk swinging on the bells’ ropes.)